On Tuesday this week, I was interviewed by host Laura Lynch on CBC Radio One’s Vancouver morning show, the Early Edition, for a segment about Alberta. The experience of the interview has me thinking a lot about the challenges we need to overcome in Canada to address energy and climate issues together.
The framing for the interview was the recent announcement by Premier Rachel Notley about Alberta temporarily curtailing oil production, set against the messages from this week’s COP meetings in Poland about the urgency to act on climate change and the need to “transition from fossil fuels”. There are a few things I wish I would have said and some questions I wish I would have been asked. I thought I’d write some reflections down in a blog post while they’re still fresh.
The main message that I was trying to convey in the interview was that Alberta can be part of the solution on climate and energy issues. Furthermore, the oil and gas industry, where so much capital and talent is currently invested in this province, should be seen as a partner in the development and deployment of climate change solutions. I know that this message is counter-intuitive to most Canadians outside Alberta. And it is self-evident to the many Albertan innovators working in the energy sector. Therein lies one of the core difficulties we have in communicating on this topic. But if we share the view that this issue is urgent, then it follows that we need all hands on deck in the search for solutions.
Yes, Alberta needs to diversify its economy both to ensure it is better prepared for a low-carbon emissions global economy and to reduce exposure to the ups and downs in the market of a global commodity over which we have no control. This is happening. Edmonton is becoming a world leading city for innovation in artificial intelligence and in healthcare technologies. Calgary is home to more than 200 renewable energy companies and 100 energy storage companies. Unfortunately, the provincial government’s continued over-reliance on revenues from the oil and gas resource masks the progress that is being made on diversification in the economy overall.
Yes, we need to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy in Canada. Alberta knows this very well. Alberta has become a hotbed for renewable energy entrepreneurs and investors, as the province phases out coal and develops 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity to fulfill its plan to generate 30% of its electricity from renewables by 2030, all of which is expected to generate at least $10.5 billion in new investment by 2030 and 7,000 new jobs, according to Calgary Economic Development.
And yet, even if Alberta were to transition to 100% use of renewable energy for electricity, this would not replace the share of Alberta’s economic prosperity currently derived from exporting oil and gas. Our use of renewable energy as consumers is a quite different thing than our export of fossil fuels as producers. The public conversation about transition seems to largely miss this point, suggesting that it is a simple matter of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, as it might be in places where the main questions about energy are largely about consumption.
I find it interesting that a message about the need for a transition from fossil fuels, such as the one coming out of COP this week, is often interpreted by many in Canada as a need to transition from the production of fossil fuels, for example in Alberta – with very little emphasis on the need to transition from the consumption or combustion of fossil fuels across the broader economy. This is not to say that Alberta doesn’t have important work to do in better preparing its economy for the future and to make its hydrocarbons cost and carbon competitive. But we must also face the fact that if customers of Alberta’s oil don’t get it from Alberta, that will not lead them to avoid buying oil at all. They will just get it from somewhere else. So curtailing Alberta’s oil and gas production does not address the biggest part of the problem. But stifling the Alberta economy does mean that all Canadians miss out on the economic resources that could be put to use in support of the transition, not to mention the cultural benefit of truly being unified as a country in how we tackle the challenge of climate change.
On the other hand, in their frustration about the current situation, Albertans also can’t pretend that we can go back to how things were. The global transition to a low-carbon emissions economy is under way and accelerating. The world’s entrepreneurs and investors know there is big money to be made by those who bring solutions to market. The costs of new technologies are coming down as the scale of their deployment increases, and this is bound to continue. When we frame the issues in “with us or against us” terms about our oil and gas industry, without acknowledging the scale of the challenge we share together as global citizens, we prolong the mistaken view of Alberta being part of the problem instead of part of the solution. We make the situation worse.
On top of accelerating the adoption of renewable energy and diversifying the economy in Alberta, let’s also look at major opportunities that exist because of Alberta’s oil and gas sector. Let’s radically reduce emissions in the production of Alberta’s oil and gas, and in so doing leverage the oil and gas industry as development ground for exportable clean technologies and services. Let’s get full value for the fossil fuels we are producing, and invest a big portion of the proceeds into the transition – as they have done in some other oil producing jurisdictions such as Norway.
In my view, the polarization on these issues has gotten us into a position where unfortunately a rational discussion is very difficult. It sometimes seems as if our only choices are to phase out the production of fossil fuels as quickly as possible or to completely avoid the challenge of climate change. The difficulty in having a rational discussion on these issues makes me all the more grateful for the work of The Natural Step Canada and, in particular, the Energy Futures Lab (EFL), where people with widely differing points of view have entered gracefully into the uncomfortable, unpopular, and necessary space of the radical middle. The products of that openness and grace so far include tangible exemplar initiatives generated through collaboration among uncommon partners and a shared 2050 vision for Alberta’s energy system. Staying hopeful about the future is critical, and the EFL offers legitimate grounds for hope for anyone willing to pay attention.
In the interview today, I would have rather been asked the question, “how can Alberta (and Canada) thrive as we and the rest of the world transition to a low-carbon emissions economy?” I would have answered that we can do so by working together to creatively develop solutions, and that that is far better than pitting us against one another. For inspiration on what that could look like, I might have shared the story of Ian MacGregor, the Albertan energy entrepreneur who recently inspired EFL Fellows with the scale of his vision and investments and the straightforward common sense that appears to guide his work.
If I’d had time at the end of the interview, I would have loved to have taken the rare opportunity for an Albertan to address a B.C. audience directly on these issues. I would have been tempted to ask the the good citizens of B.C. not to shun a neighbour for being producers of a product that you yourselves consume. 🙂 But instead of a defensive comment like that and in the spirit of coming together, I would have simply said to the people of B.C. that your neighbour can also be your partner in building the energy system that the future requires of us.
The article was written by Chad Park, Lead Animator of the Energy Futures Lab and Senior Associate of The Natural Step Canada.